Why is synagogue membership so expensive?
• Many synagogues run on membership subscriptions because that allows for predictable cash flow and budgeting. Every synagogue has its own formula for setting dues, and some don’t have “dues” at all.
• Costs vary by the cost of living in an area, by the size of the staff (salaries are usually the biggest single budget item) and by the services offered. A small synagogue that rents a room in a local strip mall one day a week and has no rabbi can operate very cheaply, and it will have low dues. It may be a wonderful Jewish community, but it will not be able to offer many things that people want from a synagogue.
• Most synagogues offer “dues relief” when needed. If you want to join a synagogue with dues of $2000 a year, and you can’t afford it, say so! Please do not assume that you are not wanted, or that it is a synagogue only for “rich people.” Explain that you want to belong to the synagogue, but that there is no way you can afford the recommended amount. They will usually have a way to meet you at a level you can afford.
• Sometimes people ask why they should pay for services they don’t personally use. For instance, why should I pay the full membership rate when I don’t have children in religious school? Educating the children of our community about Torah is a basic Jewish value, and it is the responsibility not just of the parents, but of the whole community. If you think the synagogue is spending your dues on something foolish or unfair, talk with a member of the board and learn about who uses that program and why it is a priority. If you still think it foolish, you can talk to more board members about examining those priorities.
• They call it a “membership” because you become a member. Once you join, at whatever dues level, you are not merely a consumer. Look for ways to keep expenses low by being a good member: cleaning up your messes, helping with set up and clean up, serving on committees, volunteering, and participating in events like congregational meetings and fundraising.
For more about how to be happy with the synagogue you join, I’ve written How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips.
I have a bias on this subject: I don’t work for a synagogue at this time, but I’ve been a synagogue member twenty years. When there’s trouble, I call my rabbi; when I have good news, I share it with friends there. My beloved and I were married there. It is my Jewish family, my first and primary tie to the larger Jewish world.
Don’t let sticker shock drive you away! There are ways to make it work. Synagogue membership is one of the great bargains around.